4. Colorado State
6. New Mexico
7. San Diego State
9. Air Force
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5. Can Colorado State climb back up the ladder? The Rams were one of the MWC's signature programs from the league's inception. CSU ran together a string of 10 straight winning seasons until a 4-7 2004 campaign. The Rams got back off the mat by going 6-6 in 2005, but were embarrassed by Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. An injury-hampered Colorado State team struggled to a 4-8 record last year, winning only one conference game. Oftentimes, the importance of running the ball is overstated, but the Rams were embarrassingly bad at it last year, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry. Part of that issue was due to the preseason loss of star Kyle Bell, who returns from a knee injury this year. Also back is senior QB Caleb Hanie, and the Rams have a total of 18 starters back, which ties for a league high. It stands to reason that in a league where the middle is very mediocre, Colorado State has a good chance of vaulting back into bowl contention.
4. Can Troy Calhoun have success with a multiple offense at Air Force? The Falcons ran Fisher DeBerry's option for over 20 years, and they won a lot of games doing it. However, wins began to dwindle away in recent years, as DeBerry went just 13-21 in his last three years. Enter Calhoun, an alum who brings in a more varied offensive look. You'll still see option, but Calhoun promises a variance, and it doesn't appear that he'll make the same mistake Todd Berry made when he took over at Army and immediately changed from the option to a passing offense. Expect Calhoun to play to the strengths of senior QB Shaun Carney and open things up when needed. While Air Force has some athletes, they've been plagued lately by a general lack of size and speed on defense, and there's no reason to think Calhoun's leadership can change that right away.
3. What is the ceiling for Utah's offense? On paper, the Utes appear to have the ability to easily top 30 points per game. They won't score at the pace of Alex Smith's 2004 team (45.3 PPG), but if Brian Johnson can even approach the level he played at before he was injured in 2005, the Utes are going to be really good. All the pieces are back around Johnson, including feature back Darryl Poston, who will be joined in the backfield by JC transfer Matt Asiata and junior Darrell Mack. Brent Casteel leads a talented group of receivers, and the offensive line is almost intact from last year. Coach Kyle Whittingham should be able to field a strong defense, led by senior NT Gabe Long and senior LBs Malakai Mokofisi and Joe Jiannoni. The opener at Oregon State won't be easy, and neither will dates with UCLA (home) and Louisville (road), but Utah should be battle-tested when it comes time to face fellow MWC contenders TCU and BYU on the road.
2. How will BYU build on a great 2006? The Cougars, led by senior QB John Beck, rolled to wins in their last ten games, including a 38-8 thrashing of Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. Beck is gone, but Arizona State transfer Max Hall is ready to assume the offense, if he can win the long battle with Brenden Gaskins for the job (no starter announced as of this writing). The Cougars have a tough early schedule to greet their new leader, with a home game against Arizona followed up by trips to UCLA and Tulsa. The Cougars will lean on their defense early, as they try to replace Beck, leading rusher Curtis Brown, and their top four receivers.
1. Is TCU capable of making a run at a BCS bowl? Considering that the Horned Frogs lost six offensive starters, including steady QB Jeff Ballard, receiver Quentily Harmon, and oft-injured RB Lonta Hobbs, it's going to be tough. The running burden falls totally on Aaron Brown now. Brown was the 2005 MWC Freshman of the Year, but he struggled through injuries last year. The quarterbacking duties are probably going to fall on sophomore Marcus Jackson, who saw limited time as a freshman. Like BYU, it's expected that TCU will go as far as their defense can take them, and Gary Patterson usually has a pretty good defense. This year should be no exception, as TCU brings back nine of the starters from a unit that held opponents to a measly 12.3 points per game last year.
CISKIE BLOG PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: Brian Johnson, QB, Utah
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Tommy Blake, DE, TCU
Preseason Coach of the Year: Sonny Lubick, Colorado State
Coach on the Hot Seat: Mike Sanford, UNLV
Bowl Bound: TCU, BYU, Utah
Bowl Bubble: Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico
Best Non-Conference Game: Colorado State vs. Colorado, September 1
Worst Non-Conference Game: South Carolina State at Air Force, September 1